We need to take a more in-depth look at the systemic problems that brought legitimacy to police in schools in the first place. 


by Mustafa Ali-Smith

As protests continue on both the national and global scale, widespread call-to-actions ramp up. Dismantling, defunding, and divesting from policing and providing police-free schools are becoming a part of everyday conversations.

Early educational institutions have even begun to respond to these call-to-actions by ending their relationship with local police departments and promising police-free schools. This promise is a victory for organizers, students and community members who’ve been impacted by the unjust approaches. These new commitments invest in community-led harm reduction, mental health restorative services, and outlets of support rather than methods that perpetuate punitive and violent measures.   

The movement for defunding police, imagining police-free schools, and focusing on transformative justice are gaining traction more than ever before. Still, we need to take a more in-depth look at the systemic problems that brought legitimacy to police in schools in the first place. 

White supremacy and racism have, for centuries, been the practice of domination. And institutions, like our educational one, were built with those values in mind, which capitalized off the labor of marginalized communities. Those values continue to benefit white people to this day.  

Schools were initially designed through a white supremacist, patriarchal framework for white middle-class males. These schools  excluded women and Black, Indigenous, other people of color (BIPOC). Over time, they would begin to accept women into these new education systems. Still, it would be centuries later until reforms to our education system would be made to address “separate but equal” institutions—the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education— and other educational rights of BIPOC.  

RELATED: We need Restorative Justice in our schools, not more police

Educational reforms meant to address the disparities that BIPOC experienced, steadily failed to solve the systemic conditions that produced the disparities. These reforms include the well-known No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Every Student Succeeds Act, Affirmative Action, and Race to The Top. They provided funding to schools. They also established requirements like “teaching to test,” high stakes testing, and reporting adequate yearly progress of the school to emphasize accountability. 

These may have appeared to be reforms that would help BIPOC overcome the inequities in schools. However, they were more of an example of how simply providing “support” to issues on the surface won’t address the white supremacist structures imbedded in them. Consequently, the problems continued to occur.  

When Affirmative Action was introduced to address discrimination, it became something that benefited the most privileged—white people—who have bribed test administrators and counselors to falsify their ethnicity and test scores.

When the government funneled money into schools to yield improvements, they did so without acknowledging how it has generationally stripped BIPOC from resources. This ultimately thrusts BIPOC into starting educational journeys from systemic disadvantages.    

When schools developed standardized high-stakes testing, they were made to reflect the standards of whiteness and not BIPOC. As a result, reforms like NCLB inevitably left BIPOC behind because they didn’t meet the standards of whiteness.  

The reality of some of these reforms is that they helped more white people than BIPOC. The most marginalized students continue to be concentrated in schools with fewer resources than their white counterparts through hyper segregation. BIPOC spend less time in school due to disciplinary actions. Some teachers even maintain biases that hold lower expectations for BIPOC students, which inevitably become prophecies they facilitate.

Furthermore, students, staff, and educators are expected to meet standards that are not in the best interest of marginalized groups. Instead, they uphold whiteness and white supremacy by systemically rewarding the most privileged students and punishing those who do not fall within those standards.

The U.S. government has steadily failed to realize that the systemic change that our educational institutions need do not come through “reforms” reliant on whiteness. They don’t come from addressing things on the surface level. It is only after uprooting and dismantling the system itself that we get closer to resolving these disparities. 

RELATED: We need to prioritize Black girls in the conversation about police in schools

The system wasn’t designed for BIPOC from the beginning. We need to imagine and actualize new educational systems that support BIPOC students, staff and educators. We need to imagine a school system that includes the histories of BIPOC, not something that is veneered with the lies of the white savior complex.

The framework necessary to understanding how we start to dismantle the white supremacist state is guided by abolition. With abolition, it’s not merely about defunding police or having police-free schools, it’s about eradicating the system that brings legitimacy to those things.

We’re at a pivotal time in the United States. People are finally beginning to unpack the decades of work offered by abolitionists. Providing better schools for our children and their children, require embracing abolition.

It will be a long, never-ending process. Still, the process needs the collective understanding of how our present systems are rooted in white supremacy. We need to be courageous in radically abolish these systems and skillful in using our imaginations to create something new.  

Mustafa Ali-Smith is a writer, organizer and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Liberal Arts program with concentrations in criminal justice, education, and race. You can follow Mustafa at @MustafaAliSmith.